Paul Thek

Marcel Duchamp once said that “a picture dies after a few years like the man who painted it. Afterward it’s called the history of art.” The process, however, is not inevitable: as Chris Dercon writes in his catalogue foreword for Paul Thek—The wonderful world that almost was, the history of art has seriously undervalued the work of Paul Thek. The exhibition, organized by Roland Groenenboom, provides the opportunity to judge whether Thek’s art now has the historicity necessary to be more fully assessed and appreciated.

There are a number of reasons behind Thek’s neglect. For one thing, he spent the most productive years of his career as a nomadic American expatriate in Europe, remaining obscure to the U.S. art audience. Unfortunately, he also remained obscure to most Europeans. Thek tended to work with unstable materials, and to present his art as work in progress. As many other installation- and performance-oriented artists of the period found out (those affiliated with Fluxus, for example), the use of temporary environments and ephemeral objects—reflecting not only tenuous finances and makeshift exhibition possibilities but a rebelliously spontaneous esthetic—tends to elude art history. Another factor, also shared by some of Thek’s most interesting peers, was the work’s lack of a dominant medium, genre, or style. Commonplace enough now, this strategy invited critical and commercial neglect at the time. Likewise, Thek’s tendency to work with collaborators may have diminished his authorial presence in the eyes of critics and curators.

Then there was Thek’s ambivalence about being an artist at all. In an interview with Harald Szeemann in 1973, he talked about the art life in New York in the late ’60s: “I felt like a rather useless member of society, just producing more and more rarefied artifacts while all hell seemed to be breaking loose. . . . I had no idea what I was supposed to do, or how to do it, or if I was supposed to do anything. The artist’s role was simply insufficient as it had been presented to me.” Feeling “cooped up” in New York, Thek lived in Europe off and on during the ’60s and ’70s, roaming around with a nomadic group of friends and collaborators. In Europe he discovered Joseph Beuys, and other helpful models for the role of “artist.” He also found a culture more open to the soulful, organic, downright funky installations that he had begun to create.

Among the first of these idiosyncratic, meditative environments was The Procession/The Artist’s Co-op, 1969. The name may be a pun on “cooped up,” but it also alludes to the cooperative aspect of Thek’s artmaking. Like later installations, the work evoked a bond between nature and the human world, combining elements such as branches, sand, flowers, and vegetables with materials like newspapers and wire mesh. Part of the installation—the Dwarf Parade Table—was reconstructed for the Rotterdam show.

At the heart of Thek’s environments were several key figurative forms that traveled with him like members of his band of collaborators. One of these, Fishman, 1968, commanded center stage at the Witte de With, hanging conspicuously above the topmost stairs. This latex cast of the artist’s body is posed as if floating, perhaps buoyed up by fish. If the Christian references don’t resonate immediately, the sensation of a man at once drowning and flying is effectively dislocating. In Rotterdam, one of the Fishman was wedged under a table suspended from the ceiling, as it was in the last few Thek installations in Europe. In this configuration it is titled Fishman in Excelsis Table.

Another of Thek’s body casts was titled “Death of a Hippie,” a name Thek disliked but which the piece never shook. Cast in wax in 1967, this deathly figure, its eyelids closed and dark tongue sticking out, was first installed as part of a larger installation, The Tomb. There it was surrounded by useful objects for the afterlife—blank notebook pages and covered bowls of food. If the protruding tongue suggests both orgasmic and sacred references (i.e., to receiving the sacrament), the mutilation of one of the hands—its fingers are cut off—carries these readings in any number of directions, including that of the artist as sacrificial victim. In later installations the “Hippie” was placed in a coffinlike crate with onion and tulip bulbs that sprouted during the course of the show. The possibility of healing suggested here reappears in a notebook sketch where Thek shows Jesus restoring the ear of Vincent van Gogh.

As closely as it resembled Thek, the “Hippie” also looked like a near-perfect personification of the commingled idealism and despair of the late 1960s. Its resignation seems to portend both the sense of loss that would pervade America and Thek’s own submission to his demons. Although the “Hippie” traveled with Thek to various installations in Europe throughout the early ’70s, it was destroyed in 1981 by a shipper when Thek was either unwilling or unable to pay for customs duties and storage costs.

Thek, raised as a Roman Catholic, often seemed to be doing penance in his art; early evidence of his fascination with martyrdom appears in the “Technological Reliquaries” of the mid ’60s. The most seductive and repellent of Thek’s works, these pieces seem to consist of severed limbs and decomposing chunks of flesh made of wax, all neatly fitted into sterile Plexiglas boxes. For Thek, the body was “the hottest subject.” He had been impressed by the fragmented plaster body parts sometimes incorporated into the work of Jasper Johns, but the “Technological Reliquaries” poeticize dismemberment rather more violently and alarmingly than Johns ever did.

Thek saw a void in the art of his time; in the “Technological Reliquaries,” he filled that void with content. Not surprisingly, the meaning of this particular content has been the subject of some speculation. Suzanne Delehanty has described the “Technological Reliquaries” as “a protest against pop art’s ready acceptance of mass production and minimalism’s idealization of technology.” One would agree that they subvert those dominant modes of the ’60s, whether humorously or in outright antipathy. In 1981, Richard Flood argued that the putrefied flesh in Thek’s boxes was symptomatic of the disaffection caused by the Vietnam War; in the Rotterdam catalogue, he writes of them even more provocatively, acknowledging the ahistoricism of his claim, as metaphors for a world beset by AIDS, which killed Thek in 1988. Thirty years later, the work is still gripping—to use Thek’s own word for it. (Thek, incidentally, stopped making these pieces in 1967 when he overheard himself described at an opening as the “meat man.”) The reliquary boxes look like antiquated incubators, keeping alive the last vestige of some nearly extinct human strain (emotion? sexuality?), and suggesting our fear of technology. It is as if all that is raw and human and feeling has been encased, repressed, and subdued.

If Thek’s “Technological Reliquaries” communicate the artist’s intuitions and feelings with powerful clarity, his paintings resist them more easily. Prescient examples of “bad” painting, these can be wonderfully deft, iconoclastic, understated, and witty. Their explicit subject matter ranges from popular cartoon characters like Bambi to ecclesiastical themes; for Thek, they were about theology, psychology, philosophy, and art. In Rotterdam, some were installed in the spirit of “A Lot of Little Paintings,” an exhibition Thek mounted in 1980, in New York. There he humorously humanized the gallery environment by turning down the lights, attaching goose-necked museum lamps to the paintings, hanging them low, and setting out faux-gold chairs for optimum viewing pleasure. In another sweet tribute to Thek’s sensibility, a moment from his last show, at the Brooke Alexander Gallery in New York in 1988, was reinstalled at the Witte de With: a small painting and a small drawing, hung similarly low and placed in front of a kindergarten chair.

Thek once said he considered his notebooks his best work; Roland Groenenboom wisely made ample use of them, along with reconstructed environments (built from fragments and from his collaborators’ memories), drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographic and video documentation. The total effect may not have been too dissimilar from that of Thek’s own installations. His desire was to disrupt the viewer’s reality, to present an ambience “which is so peaceful and so beautiful that you’re shattered when you leave.” As I wandered through the galleries I felt momentarily transported. The notebooks in particular helped the viewer get inside the artist’s skin, even to draw near enough to touch the plentiful open wounds. And the sculpture looked as much like Christian relics as I imagine the mystically oriented and religiously conflicted Thek, who late in his life sought the sanctuary of a Catholic cloister, could have hoped.

In 1967 in Artforum, Robert Pincus-Witten compare Thek’s “Hippie” to Duchamp’s Large Glass as a work representing “a summation and an adieu.” “Paul Thek—The wonderful world that almost was” felt that way too. Though a number of key works, like the “Hippie,” had disappeared long ago or were too fragile to travel, the coming together of this selection of work allowed a glimpse into Thek’s soul. Unfortunately, this exhibition is not scheduled to travel to the United States, a reminder of the artist’s troubled reception in his own country, but the accompanying catalogue helps define Thek’s place in the history of his time.

Elizabeth Armstrong